As the year winds to a close, local schools are wrapping up the first semester under the latest conference alignment.
Nearly two years ago, the N.C. High School Athletic Association announced its intention to split up the Northwest Conference and have separate leagues for 1A and 2A.
With a full fall season and part of the winter season under their belts, school officials can see what the impact has been.
As expected, 1A Mount Airy and East Surry have faced longer bus rides and greater gas expense traveling to Winston-Salem and Walkertown instead of Toast and Dobson.
The gas expenses have been slightly less for the 2A schools, North Surry and Surry Central. The trips to Winston-Salem Prep were replaced with Carver, another Winston-Salem school. The long ride to Kernersville (Bishop McGuinness) was replaced with the shorter trip to East Bend (Forbush).
Football coaches worried about attendance, both for the size of the crowds cheering and the gate receipts collected.
While one year isn’t a large enough sample size, the schools seemed satisfied with the football season.
Mount Airy’s blowout win over Atkins on Oct. 18 didn’t see a lot of visitors on the far side of Wallace Shelton Stadium. However, the Bears still saw a huge crowd for North Surry, even though the game didn’t carry the extra weight of conference implications.
True, Atkins didn’t bring a lot of fans up from Winston-Salem, said Randy Marion, East Surry athletic director. However, scheduling Starmount and South Stokes at home and traveling to Surry Central and North Surry meant good crowds for the nonconference segment of the schedule.
Schools and coaches just have to look at what works and what doesn’t and adjust for it, said Shane Slate, North’s athletic director and coach for volleyball and girls basketball.
East Surry didn’t expect much of a draw against Bishop, so that game was designated for the homecoming dance.
The Cardinals finished the season with back-to-back home games with Atkins and Mount Airy. Knowing the Bears would be a good crowd, the Cards decided to move Senior Night up a week to get more folks out against Atkins.
Similarly, Mount Airy also scheduled Bishop for homecoming, and North Surry scheduled Carver for its dance.
Despite the distance involved, East Surry has found that Atkins, Bishop, Walkertown and Prep have all been very nice people to work with, said Barry Hall, baseball coach and retired athletic director. Marion agreed that he has gotten along well with the coaches and administrators since stepping in for Hall.
Don’t forget, Marion added, the Cards have played nonconference games against the likes of West Iredell and Newton-Conover in recent years that didn’t bring many fans with them. So the gate impact was been slightly better this year — but of course some of that might be attributed to how good the football team played, he noted.
One downside of playing rivals at the start of the season is the impact of the games themselves, noted Myles Wilmoth, Surry Central athletic director.
The Eagles hosted East Surry the first week of the season; that was before the teams had a chance to gel and certainly before the pressure of playoff seedings came into play.
When North Surry played Forbush and Surry Central played West Stokes in the last week of the season, those two games decided the final standings for the Western Piedmont Conference. Turnout was good for both schools because the teams were fighting for their playoff lives.
Still, their attendance was nothing like the monster crowd that East Surry had for Mount Airy that same night.
Outside of football, the new conferences had a big impact on scheduling for the other fall sports.
For years, Mount Airy and South Stokes were the only area schools with a girls golf program. Then East Surry, North Surry and Surry Central joined within a year of each other.
The realignment split up those teams with much weaker matches played at two locations each week.
With only five conference foes, Slate noted that his volleyball team only had 10 conference games.
That was barely a month’s worth of games, and he had to make calls to fill up the other two months on the calendar, he said.
Wilmoth said he had similar trouble finding enough Tuesday dates for the basketball season. Other schools are busy playing their own conference games on Tuesday, he noted.
Instead, he has a couple of games scheduled for Wednesdays; one is against East Surry and the other with R.J. Reynolds.
An issue for parents with the realignment is the decreased focus on conference games with local news coverage. Indeed, with Mount Airy and North Surry playing in separate leagues, it has made it more difficult for The News to attend games firsthand.
Some fans also contend that splitting up the local schools made for weaker conferences.
While that may be true, having two leagues has caused a great increase in the awards received by local players.
The four local schools saw a 39 percent increase in the number of all-conference selections — from 66 to 92 — and player of the year awards went from five to eight. Coach of the year awards increased from four to five.
Last year, the four schools combined for 27 selections to the first team for football. This year, Mount Airy and East Surry alone made up 27 picks. North Surry and Surry Central added eight in their own conference for a total of 35.
Tennis increased from 10 to 15, soccer from 12 to 23 and volleyball from nine to 12.
Cross country went from one (Kirsten Parries) to six, while Parries earned female runner of the year both times.
The new Western Piedmont Conference was weaker for cross country since it didn’t include North Stokes and Bishop McGuinness, said Jason Bryant, Surry Central coach. However, it was good in a way because it got more kids out and running.
Even though the old conference had nine schools, only four of them had a girls team a couple of years ago, he noted. This year, North Surry and Surry Central both fielded full teams and saw great improvement over the course of the season.
As far as gate receipts go, some sports like cross country, golf and tennis don’t charge admission, so that doesn’t figure into it, Bryant noted.
Will Hurley, Mount Airy soccer coach, said he liked the 1A aspect of the Northwest Conference. Surry Central and West Stokes are perennial powerhouses, but they are bigger schools and have a bigger student body from which to select athletes, said Hurley.
Mount Airy has a strong football team, which means there are far fewer athletes left to play soccer in the fall.
With the new conference, however, both Mount Airy and East Surry had seven soccer players picked for all-conference.
It wasn’t always the 1A schools that lived in the shadow of successful programs.
“I’ve had a good team for a couple of years,” said Dennis Miller, Surry Central tennis coach.
While the Lady Eagles have had good success the past three seasons, Central hasn’t been able to reach the level of Mount Airy and Bishop, the two best teams in all of 1A this year.
The Eagles went undefeated in conference play, and North Surry’s Sarah Glasco earned player of the year after three years of coming up short to Mount Airy’s Jordan Jackson.
Miller was named the Western Piedmont coach of the year, while Mount Airy’s Scott Kniskern took home yet another award in the Northwest.
Being out of the same league as the Bears and Villains doesn’t mean that the Eagles won’t challenge themselves, Miller added. The only loss in the regular season came when Central took on Mount Airy. It takes playing a really good team to bring out the best in players sometimes, he said.
East Surry was a tough nonconference match, too, he added.
It has yet to be seen what kind of impact the realignment will have on Hall’s baseball team, but the long-time coach is worried that the Northwest won’t be good enough to bring out the best in his guys.
Mount Airy and Walkertown will be very competitive, said Hall, but who knows about the other three teams.
Usually a coach tries to tweak the rotation so that his best pitcher is on the mound against a conference foe, Hall said. However, this year there could be a week where Hall puts his #2 or #3 pitcher on the mound against a conference team and saves the #1 for nonconference.
It was always fun to take on North Surry, Surry Central, West Stokes and South Stokes in conference play, said Hall.
This year, the Cards won’t even face the Wildcats in baseball. The two teams couldn’t find a time to schedule a game around conference dates, he said.
No matter how admission costs vary with the new conferences, schools will always rely on the generosity of local businesses.
The Pilot Mountain community has been great at helping out with donations or even putting in manual labor, according to Hall. The wrestling team got new mats this year, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for private businesses lending a hand.
Regardless of people’s feelings, the alignment is locked in for another two years before the NCHSAA looks at alternative configurations.